Liverpool and Manchester United meet again in a different world with football providing semblance of normality

In the 364 days since Liverpool last faced Manchester United at Anfield, so much has changed. A year ago it was unthinkable that these teams could meet in an almost-empty stadium.

Now, with Covid-19 raging throughout the country, some find the thought of professional football to be unacceptable. With the country locked down and Coronavirus death rates climbing above 1,200 per day, why should elite sport be allowed to continue?

In Parliamentary circles there are mixed feelings. On one hand the Government are reluctant to pull the plug on the game because of its value as a distraction. There are some who scoff at this notion, arguing that advocates of football wildly overestimate the number of people who are interested in the sport. TV viewing figures suggest this is true. It is not unusual for BT Sport games to be watched by less than half a million viewers. If Sky – who have a much bigger subscriber base – hit a peak above three million during a match it is a cause for celebration at the company. The short-sighted conclusion is that most of the UK’s population, in the region of 68 million, do not care about football.

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That ignores the psychological impact. Many more people have a loose interest in teams. Tories recognise this, sometimes in the most contemptuous manner. The 2012 book ‘Britannia Unchained,’ written by five Conservative MPs, four of whom are in the Cabinet, contained this little snippet: “The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”

There is only one real truth in this ideological nonsense. Interest in football is widespread and even more likely to cut across class and age barriers than pop music. While games continue, there is a semblance of normality.

The downside of this is the sport is useful as a different kind of diversion. A regime that is failing in almost every area in confronting a series of national crises can give the illusion of competence by suspending matches. Boris Johnson can create the fantasy of action by attacking minor issues while the core problems rumble on unaddressed.

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The behaviour of a small number of players breaking household mixing rules over the festive season and outbreaks of Covid-19 at clubs like Aston Villa and Fulham play into the hands of those who look down at football. The sight of crowds outside Marine before their FA Cup tie against Tottenham Hotspur and photographs of jubilant dressing rooms after giantkillings spread the impression that the game is out of touch with reality.

Sometimes it is. Celtic’s trip to Dubai and the club’s subsequent response were embarrassing. For the most part, though, the industry has gone to great lengths to uphold the protocols laid down by Public Health England. Other businesses continue to operate without the level of testing and preventative measures that are required to keep football going. It is appalling that scenes of players briefly hugging after a goal draw more outrage than footage of London Underground trains rammed full of mainly low-paid commuters.

What is surprising is the number of people who purport to be advocates of the game who take the sackcloth-and-ashes approach to the immediate future. The likes of Sam Allardyce have ulterior motives when proposing “firebreaks” in the season. Allardyce would like more time to get to grips with the most difficult job of his career and buying time makes sense for the West Bromwich Albion manager. Others seem to suggest that it is unseemly to continue with the season while people are dying in such numbers. This is an emotive reaction but nonsensical. If football is a threat to public health, it should be shut down. It is not.

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A section of observers cannot come to terms with games played in empty stadiums. This is ludicrous. Crowds add hugely to the spectacle but the majority of sport is played before a handful of spectators. If football without fans is nothing, Sunday League is pointless, the lower end of the pyramid a futile pastime and youth matches merely a succession of fools’ gatherings.

At the grittier end of the game the sidelines are barely populated. The action on the pitch is as competitive whether or not the stands are full. Everyone wants supporters to return but in these dangerous times there is something joyous about being able to watch physical competition, even in the echoing emptiness of Premier League stadiums.

Across the country millions will watch Liverpool play Manchester United, the biggest match in English football. Even more will tune in to listen on the radio. They will turn on Match of the Day for the highlights and read about it online and in newspapers. Key workers will discuss the result and any controversies at their workplaces the next day – and, no, it will not negatively affect their productivity. At times it seems like the sport is the only thing that can steer the topic of conversation away from the pandemic.

In the worst of times, football is a small blessing. We all should be grateful for it.

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